SWANA’s Continuous Efforts Toward Improving Refuse Collections Safety

Each morning fleets of garbage, recycling, and yard waste trucks travel the streets and alleyways of our communities. When it comes to these trucks, depending on the job, the driver is on the right or left side of the cab. Having to drive on both sides means drivers have to be ambidextrous in their understanding of their trucks’ operating from all angles.

Now, when the trucks are driving on the roads, and not engaged in pickups, the driver usually sits on the left side of the vehicle, as most drivers do. When the driver sits on the left side to drive, there is a significant blind spot in the lower right front of the truck, where incidents often occur when the refuse truck is turning right. These incidents happen because the driver can’t see a pedestrian, bicyclist, motorcyclist (Vulnerable Road Users – VRU), or other vehicles because of the blind spot created by the design, configuration, and operation of the trucks.

Collection Is a Risky Business

While recycling is good for the environment, OSHA has labeled it as dangerous for workers. “Collection is one of the most dangerous activities in the recycling industry. Tragically, workers have lost their lives due to being backed-over by trucks or struck by on-coming vehicles as they were exiting the trucks they were driving,” according to OSHA.

Today, even the best operators need help if they are to navigate collection equipment safely. Exposure to powerful machinery with moving parts and the dangers out on collections with tight turns, narrow alleys, crowded parking lots, pedestrians, and other vulnerable road users (VRU) begs the need for improved all-around blind spot visibility to protect operators against potential collisions.

Each year 20 percent of backing accidents occur when pedestrians, cars, or bicycles move into the refuse truck’s path while backing up. Wrecks of this kind have the most potential for severe injuries or even death. While there is no substitute for drivers knowing their environment, rear-vision cameras and collision mitigation systems can help prevent backing incidents.

As new technologies continue to develop and shift the recycling industry’s progression, enhancing the well-being of the world’s populations is essential to achieving sustainable development. While recycling continues to be one of the focal points to the ‘green economy’ movement – social equity and human well-being must also be enhanced.

David Biderman, SWANA’s Executive Director, and CEO, commented in an interview: “SWANA is a big proponent of using telematics, radar, and other systems to protect workers. Some drivers consider in-cab cameras to be ‘big brother’ watching them, and we need to do a better job of explaining that these systems are being added to protect drivers and the public.”

SWANA advises drivers to assume other vehicles or individuals do not see them coming. Utilizing technology can allow you to maneuver safely. These warning devices are designed to alert others of your presence and can make drivers and pedestrians aware of your intentions. According to OSHA, the waste and recycling sector has a rate of fatal injuries 16 times the average across all industries.

It has become clear in numerous studies of incidents within the waste and recycling industry that more than half of the backing accidents result from drivers reversing into VRUs, and objects that should have been visible to drivers when they first arrived.

These findings indicate that drivers aren’t doing a thorough initial scan of the collection environment. When drivers first arrive at a site and are still facing forward, drivers have the best view of potential backing hazards where they can see through their windshields and side windows. 

SWANA’s David Biderman believes that it’s likely that moving from manual collection to automated collection will help reduce the rate of struck-by incidents and other accidents. However, those drivers will still not be immune to being involved in fatal events. 

“We will continue to rally together to make this industry and its workers safer,” Dennis Batts, SWANA’s Safety Committee vice-chair said. Efforts such as:

  • At WasteExpo’s 2019 show, the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) introduced Collection for Life, a pledge program designed to generate regional and national public awareness campaigns to help protect the lives of drivers and helpers on the road in the waste industry. Until the public understands that they are risking the lives of those working in the waste industry by driving distracted, collection employees’ lives will continue to be at risk.
  • In late 2019, SWANA’s Hauler Safety Outreach Program and the National Alliance signed an agreement between OSHA, NWRA, and SWANA that that year they would all help to focus their efforts on the risks that pose the greatest dangers to solid waste employees and the public they serve.

Waste Collection Incidents

Accidents by nature are unplanned events, but in creating strategic plans that include the integration of safety training, education, and technologies, significant strides can be made to mitigate or altogether avoid future incidents and collisions.

“SWANA had observed a notable decrease in fatal incidents in the first two months of 2020 compared to the past two years,” Biderman said. “But starting in mid-March, we have seen a rapid increase in the frequency of these tragic events. This coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic. Although solid waste workers are legitimately concerned about their health and the health of their families, they need to be safety-focused on the route and in post-collection operations.”

However, in March 2020, SWANA shared in a press release stating that fatal incidents involving solid waste collection vehicles and personnel have occurred in Arizona, California, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

“The industry needs to recognize that we have a serious safety problem and work together, collectively, to address it,” Biderman continued. “It affects our ability to attract and retain drivers. Every fatality is a stain on this great industry, and distracted driving is a factor in only a small percentage of these tragic events. Nothing we do at SWANA is more important than safety, and we look forward to developing new safety initiatives and programs that help get the industry off the list of most dangerous jobs in the United States.”

According to SWANA’s data, incidents such as these come at a cost:

  • Backing accidents involving only property damage have cost a minimum of $7,400 on average
  •  Accidents involving injuries require a minimum of $27,558 on average
  • Incidents resulting in a fatality require a minimum of $500,000 in the unfortunate event of one

Recent events have shown there is a real need for better safety training and implementation. Thankfully, many organizations have excellent programs worth emulating, which is why PRECO will be announcing its top three nominees for the 2019 Excellence in Safety Award in July 2020.